Saturday, November 25, 2006

Gojira: The Monster Revealed

by William S. Kowinski

It took 50 years (and more than 25 sequels) to reach a few U.S. movie theatres, and another two years to become widely available on DVD, but now we can all see the original Japanese film, Gojira, made in 1954. Star Trek fans may be interested in this, because the original film—not the U.S. version-- is the same sort of science fiction of consciousness as Trek, dealing with real world issues through story that is science fiction, symbol or allegory, and an action adventure film all at once.

Until now, all we’ve seen of this movie are the scenes that remained when some 40 minutes of the original were cut and replaced with 20 minutes of new scenes starring Raymond Burr. This amalgamation opened in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and became an international sensation.

That the Japanese original was never released in the U.S. might seem to suggest it was an inferior film. Now we have the evidence that this simply isn’t true. All of the special effects sequences are the same as in the U.S. version, but what surrounds them makes the difference.

It’s understandable to some extent why a 1954 U.S. audience might not appreciate Gojira. It is really a Japanese film, and most Americans weren’t even seeing foreign language films from Europe yet. The differences of course extend beyond language, to culture and styles of storytelling, and the use of the filmmaking vocabulary. Even today, it probably helps to have seen a few Japanese films of the period, like those of the acknowledged master, Akira Kurosawa, to fully appreciate Gojira. (Anime may be relevant in other ways, but not historically.) The DVD commentary on Gojira does help a lot on cultural interpretations, though—it explains why family is so important, why one character is so ashamed to have divulged a secret, and so on.

In the mid-50s, it was probably considered still a bit risky to even adapt a Japanese film that showed Japanese on screen--not only did U.S. films have a history of depicting Japanese in subservient and racially cliched roles, but there was still substantial hangover of feeling from the virilently anti-Japanese war propaganda from World War II just 9 years before, which attacked Japanese as people (racially) and as a culture as well as an enemy nation. But the U.S. had occupied Japan until 1952, so more Americans had been there, and Hollywood had made a few films set in Japan. Still, in 1966 when George Takei became a regular on Star Trek as an officer on the bridge of a starship, it was a step forward that had not been taken until then.

As for the movie itself, pace isn’t really the problem. Although the story in Gojira is more centered on the characters, and some of the dialogue runs a little long, it actually moves faster than the tedious beginning of the U.S. film (which I suspect has been cut a lot in the TV versions most people have seen, getting it to the monster faster but making the basic story even more rudimentary, if not confusing.)

But the original Gojira is a powerful film, in its story, dialogue, acting, musical score and especially its images. Even without knowing the specific history that saturates this film, its authenticity is unmistakable just from seeing it. Perhaps it takes some small familiarity with Japanese music to fully appreciate the score (by Akira Ifkube), but I’m guessing that most viewers will feel how much more powerful it is in the original.

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